Air force members charged over 17 civilians' deaths


Mon, Dec 22, 2003 - Page 7

Breathing new life into a case that has strained relations with the US, Colombia's attorney general has charged three air force members with involuntary manslaughter for dropping a bomb that killed 17 civilians during a 1998 battle with leftist rebels.

The three helicopter crew members -- air force Captain Cesar Romero, 1st Lieutenant Johan Jimenez and an enlisted man, technician Hector Mario Hernandez -- will face trial in a civilian court on involuntary manslaughter charges stemming from the December 1998 attack near the northeastern village of Santo Domingo, the attorney general's office announced.

In a statement released late Friday, the attorney general's office said it appeared the air force members did not realize there were civilians in the area when they dropped the bomb during a battle with a group of rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The bomb killed 17 civilians and wounded 25 others, the attorney general's office said.

"Evidence shows that [they] did not intend to inflict harm upon the civilian population," the statement said. "Rather, it shows a lack of foresight in using this type of war equipment."

Constant delays in the case prompted Washington to suspend military aid to the First Aerial Command Unit, the outfit involved in the attack, earlier this year. In August, General Hector Velasco retired as commander of the air force amid US complaints that he had stalled probes into the attack.

For nearly five years, the air force denied responsibility for the attack. Velasco said the deaths were caused by a rebel truck bomb, even though a forensic analysis by the US FBI concluded the shrapnel was consistent with that of a fragmentation bomb dropped from the air.

The new air force chief, General Edgar Lesmez, finally acknowledged in October that the helicopter did indeed drop a bomb, but said it was aimed at a group of FARC rebels.